Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




Total Pageviews

Friday, October 30, 2009

DO WE WANT AN IMPERIAL PRESIDENT?

David Brooks writes a column today in the NY TIMES puzzling over whether Obama has the "determination" required of a "war president." [Am I the only person who thinks that Brooks looks like one of those fat-faced smug little boys, all dressed up in a suit and being fussed over by his mother, who is being pushed forward to ask the four questions at a seder?] The subject, of course, is Afghanistan, and Brooks longs for a Churchill [whom he references] who will doggedly pursue wars to "victory." As columnists often do, he attributes these thoughts to unnamed "military experts," but the opinions are transparently his. [Brooks, of course, like almost everyone else pontificating about matters of war and peace, has never spent a day in uniform, and wouldn't know which end of a rifle to put the ammunition in, but that does not stop him from speaking with calm self-assurance about sending other people into harm's way.]

This set me thinking about what the so often invoked Founding Fathers wanted in a president. By a delicious irony, Obama actually comes very close to what those slave owners had in mind -- someone who seeks to work cooperatively with Congress, who takes a limited and modest view of the title "Commander in Chief," who shuns "entangling alliances" and focuses his energies on the domestic needs of the country. Brooks acknowledges condescendingly that Obama is "intellectually sophisticated" and "is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence." But, Brooks says, what really matters is whether Obama possesses "tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity anjd confusion."

Now, let us think. What recent president exhibited that trait, so much more important, accoridng to Brooks, than mere intellectual sophistication and the ability to weigh nuanced evidence? Ah yes, I remember -- George W. Bush.

If it weren't for the crossword puzzle and Frank Rich, I would cancel my subscription.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

THE CIA AND LOUIS XIV

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France was far and away the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. French replaced Latin as the language of diplomacy and Versailles served as the archetypal McMansion to which lesser monarchs could only aspire. During that time, France meddled endlessly in the conflicts that were continually breaking out in Europe, secretly underwriting one side or the other, and sometimes funneling funds to both sides in order to maximize its influence.

Since the end of World War II, The United States has assumed the role of Meddler in Chief. So it did not surprise me to learn yesterday that America, through the CIA, has been underwriting Hamid Karzai's drug kingpin and Taliban supplier brother. Louis XIV would be proud.

This revelation has sparked a good deal of moral outrage, which at the moment is a politically useful thing. But the fault of America's Afghan policy does not consist in the fact that we have made a pact with the devil. Inasmuch as we have assumed the devil's role in much of the world, whom else would we throw in with? The fundamental problem of our Afghan adventure is that it has no recognizable or plausible purpose, and serves only to waste lives and resources without end.

The Bourbon meddling was equally without point. In the end, it bankrupted the monarchy, and we all know how that story ended. Do you have your knitting, Madame DeFarge?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS

These past several days have been emotionally wrenching. First the news [overblown] that Obama was trying to kill the public option. Then Harry Reid's bold move [my new hero]. Then Joe Lieberman's apparent announcement that he would vote to support a filibuster. [You have to be Jewish, as I am, to enjoy the privilege of saying openly just how thoroughly despicable he is. The knee-jerk apologists for Israel have a contemptuous epithet for people like me who dare to attack the Liebermans of this world. They call us "self hating Jews." The phrase always amuses a narcissist like me.] Just this morning, Reid and Durbin indicated that reconciliation is not off the table. [I hope my readers are sufficiently versed in the inside baseball of Washington politics to follow all of this].

Rather than try to blog by the minute, I shall let events unfold and instead talk for a bit about Freud's extraordinary book, THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, which I have finally finished reading. Freud considered it his hauptwerk and he was not wrong. There is obviously much to say about the book, but I want to write about the courage Freud showed in writing it. Freud was, of course, thoroughly a man of his milieu, which is to say a bourgeois professional Jewish doctor in late nineteenth century Vienna. He was ferociously intelligent, classically educated [you need to be up on Greek mythology just to follow his associations to elements in his own dreams], fiercely ambitious, and prudish and proper in just the way one would expect. He routinely refers to masturbation as "pollution" and at one point, about to introduce a dream that features images of urination and defecation, he writes "I have the following short dream to relate, which every reader will read with disgust." [near the end of Chapter Six, "The Dream Work."] My copy is an old 1913 edition of the authorized translation, by A. A. Brill, of the Third Edition, and pasted into the front fly leaf is a slip of paper that reads: "Publisher's Note: The sale of this book is limited to Members of the Medical, Scholastic, Legal, and Clerical professions."

Despite the almost universal rejection he faced when he announced his clinical findings, Freud persevered, acknowledging openly in the accounts of his own dreams the intensity of his desire for professional success and recognition. The fact seems to be that had Freud pursued a more conventional neurological career, he might have actually been appointed to the professorship he so desired [though the fact that he was Jewish worked against him]. Instead, he followed where his research led him, violating enormously the powerful social taboos of his milieu.

The example I find most enchanting concerns the issue of infant sexuality. It was an unquestionable premise of all psychiatric discussion in his earlier days that babies and little children are asexual, only exhibiting sexual feelings and wishes upon entering puberty. But patient after patient, under the hypnosis that was then Freud's principal therapeutic technique [learned from the great French neurologist, Charcot], reported having been sexually molested by her father as a young child. Freud's reports of these findings scandalised his audience. He was, after all, talking about upstanding Viennese bourgeois. Eventually Freud concluded that the reports were actually accounts of infantile wishes, not experiences, an extremely important realization. But this, of course, made things even worse! So, the fathers were not abusers; the little girls were sex mad creatures lusting after their fathers!

We are now so accustomed to these ideas -- thanks, of course, to Freud -- that it is extremely difficult for us to think ourselves into the world that Freud inhabited, and to understand the strength of the inhibitions he had to overcome in order to do his revolutionary work.

Well, enough already. If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest spending several weeks with THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS.

Friday, October 23, 2009

THE WAY THINGS ARE

At the moment, as you may have noticed, the Republican Party is engaged in a particularly bitter internecine battle over whom to support in the 23rd Congressional District of New York. This upstate district, which has the distinction of not having gone Democratic in a House race since the Civil War [the real Civil War, not the one the Republicans are now waging], was carried by Obama something like 52-48 in 2008. After Obama named the long time Republican holder of the seat as Secretary of the Navy, a relatively moderate Republican woman won the seat for the remainder of the term. Now the fanatical right-wingers, frantic to shoot themselves in the foot, have thrown their support behind the nominee of the Conservative Party, with the result that in the latest polls, the Democrat is actually leading the three way race with barely one third of the declared voters.

Why do I allude to this obscure race, save for the schadenfreude it affords? Because as we come down to the wire in the epic battle over health care reform, countless ostensibly knowledgeable commentators are making absurd claims about Obama's wimpishness, or his betrayal of liberal principles, or his unwillingess to wield the hammer when it is needed. "The Democrats control both houses of Congress and have sixty votes in the Senate. Why, save for Obama's bizarre lust for bipartisanship, can they not simply pass the bill he says he wants?"

Let me connect up these two matters, as lawyers say. Howard Dean and the Democratic Party made a deliberate decision to broaden their electoral efforts in 2006 and 2008, contesting districts and even states that had previously simply been conceded to the Republicans. They went out of their way to find moderate Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, who might actually have a chance of taking safe Republican seats. They sought out Iraq War veterans, military men and women with impeccable records of war-time service. They were under no illusion that these candidates, should they win, would morph into flaming liberals. But they made a judgment -- one which, I believe, was incontestably correct -- that it would be better to control both Houses of Congress with a broad coalition of left and centrist Democrats, among whom compromises would have to be struck, than to pare down their numbers to a core of reliably liberal stalwarts, and then try to make compromises with a more and more right wing Republican contingent.

Well, the strategy was a brilliant success. We won a commanding majority in both houses, even slipping into sixty votes in the Senate. And so the inevitable compromising began. Had the Democrats followed their customary practice of writing off supposedly Republican districts, we would be nowhere near 60 votes in the Senate, and we would probably have no more than a slender majority in the House. The Republicans, Lord love them, have opted for purity, and for their trouble, they now are a hairsbreadth away from being a regional faction in a permanent minority. America really is a center left country, which means that realistically, the most we can hope for, with all the skill and luck in the world, is legislation that is canted a bit more to the left than to the center.

How then can we get the truly progressive legislation we desire? The answer is obvious.

ORGANIZE!

THE GUILTY PLEASURES OF SENIORITY

Every close student of the American political system has had occasion to decry the system of seniority in the United States Congress that elevates mediocrities, or worse, to the chairs of the Committee fiefdoms that control the process of legislation. Anyone watching the egregious Max Baucus, lordly representative of three tenths of one percent of the U. S. population, will almost reflexively think of term limits and direct democracy. And yet --- and yet --- every so often, this archaic and deeply undemocratic system elevates just the right person at just the right moment to a position of benevolent dictatorship, yielding guilty delights that one must savor to the fullest while they last.

These thoughts were prompted by several hours in front of the television set watching the markup of the financial services regulation bill, presided over brilliantly, irrascibly, and imperially by the incomparable Barney Frank, long time member from Cape Cod. Frank has always been my favorite member of the House, a stocky, rumpled gay late middle-aged man with an unruly shock of white hair and a perpetually raspy voice who is manifestly about three times as smart as any of his colleagues. The Republicans on the Financial Services Committee were engaged in a seemingly endless delaying action, desperately trying to forestall what was patently inevitable, namely the imposition of some new and badly needed regulations to rein in the people who brought us the current depression. In a parliamentary body accustomed to effulgent expressions of collegial courtesy, Frank is an oasis of straight talk. After one proposed amendment had been shot down, Frank remarked, about the next one fielded by a Republican, "I thought the last amendment was the worst conceivable, but this one tops that." At one point, Frank asked routinely for unanimous consent to do something or other that one of the Republicans desired. The custom, as anyone knows who watches C-Span One or Two or Three, is for the Chair to say, "I ask for unanimous consent to ..." and then, without a moment's pause, to add "without objection." But at this point, Michelle Bachman, who sits on Barney's Committee [how is that for poetic justice?] said, "yes." "No, no," Barney explained, as to a three year old. "The way you show agreement is by being quiet. You only say something if you object." He did not add, "you idiot," but the words hung in the air.

As I say, you must cherish these moments. One final recollection, for those of you who do not know Frank so well. Frank was the first openly gay member of Congress. After he came out, he remarked, "There are plenty of gay members of Congress, and I've danced with all of them." The seniority system has its pleasures.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ANALYZE THIS!

For the past several days I have been plowing through Freud's great work, THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, in preparation for my OLLI course on Freud in the Spring. At the same time, each night, I have been having long, complicated, vivid dreams. It is as though some part of my mind is saying to Freud: "O.K. You think you are so smart? Analyze this!" Of course, Robert De Niro I am not.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

THE HIDDEN PERILS OF METAPHOR

There are two great issues now before the country -- the reform of health care, and the future of America's involvement in Afghanistan. The discussions of both are being confused and distorted by metaphors that badly represent the realities of the issues.

[A curious aside. Some years ago, Susie and I took a Dalmatian cruise that started in Athens. We were standing on a street corner in downtown Athens, idly watching traffic go by, when I noticed a panel truck attempting to back out of a driveway into the flow of traffic. I can read the Greek alphabet, but not the Greek language, so I spelled out what was written on the side of the truck. It was "Metaphoros." With a start, I realized that in Greek, "metaphoros" means "moving." It was a moving van. A metaphor is a literary trope that moves one meaning to another. "Metaphor" is a metaphor! Isn't that neat?]

In the discussion of health care, the dangerous metaphor is "a machine with many moving parts." In the Afghanistan discussion, and the discussion of many other foreign policy issues as well, the metaphor is "nation building." Both metaphors are totally inappropriate, and conceal rather than reveal the nature of the issues. [Another even more widespread and dangerous metaphor is "problem," which implies the existence of a "solution,"but let us leave that to one side for the moment.]

The characterization of the extremely complex health care reform proposals as "machines with many moving parts" is intended to compare them to Rube Goldberg machines [an obscure reference for you younger readers -- Google it] or old fashioned timepieces in which a mechanical complex of wheels and gears and springs and pointers whirrs and turns and uncoils and makes ticking noises, producing a display that tells the time, or --in the case of a typical Rube Goldberg machine -- delivers a biscuit to a pet dog. The clear implication of the metaphor is that if any one thing goes wrong -- a cog slips, a spring uncoils too soon, a gear fails to mesh -- the entire machine will come to a halt and jam up. But the complicated health care reform proposals are not like this at all. They are assemblages of proposed changes to a very large number of institutional arrangements involving the pricing of health insurance, the reimbursement of doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers for services, the imposition or removal or alteration of taxes, and hundreds of other things. The proposals are lengthy and complex because health care in America is vast and complex, absorbing up to 15% of the nation's annual gross domestic product. If one or several provisions of one of the proposals fails to produce the intended changes, or produces unintended consequences, there is no reason at all to suppose that that will jam up the other components of the proposal or result in a systemic failure of the entire undertaking. And yet, bolstered by the false metaphor, Republican opponents of reform have made precisely that claim in the past few days.

The metaphor of "nation building" is much, much more dangerous. The implication of the metaphor is that bringing a modern viable nation state into existence is a problem in "social engineering" [another totally illegitimate metaphor.] The Manhattan Project [the World War II effort to make the first atomic bomb] was an engineering problem. All of the basic science was well known among the world's leading nuclear physicists, and what remained was to solve a series of very difficult engineering problems so as to be able to produce the explosive nuclear fission chain reaction that theory said would occur under the right conditions. The effort to send a manned capasule to the surface of the moon was also an engineering problem. Once again, the theoretical science was quite well known -- so well known that writers like Jules Verne were able to anticipate the space flight in their fictions by more than a century. But there is no such thing as "building a nation." The emergence of modern nation-states, now only four centuries or so old, has been a complicated historical succession of events much studied by historians, economists, political scientists, and anthropologists. I am not aware of a single case in which one nation state has actually created another viable nation state through deliberate, intentional state action. The closest examples, I suppose, are the artificial creation of states by imperial powers in Africa and the Middle East through the imposition of boundaries and the setting up of puppet regimes. Much of the present turmoil in the world is the aftermath of these misbegotten schemes. The question facing us in Afghanistan is not whether we are willing to expend the resources and suffer the casualties that would be required to build a successful Afghani nation. The question we face is whether, since that is an impossible and even meaningless project, we can find any national interest that will justify the expenditure of resources and lives. My own view is that the answer is No. But quite apart from what one thinks about that real question, we must all stop talking as though one possible, albeit expensive. option, is to engage in "nation-building."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

OBAMA 14 REPUBLICANS 9

I spent a good deal of time yesterday tuned in to the Baucus Committee hearings leading up to the vote to report out the version of health care reform drafted and negotiated by the members of the committee. As I watched the grim, twitching faces of the visibly distressed Republicans casting their futile "nay" votes, I thought again of the many ways in which modern societies have managed to sublimate the blood lust of battle. Many commentators have observed that the language of early modern science, with its talk of "putting nature to the question" [i.e., torturing it to force it to reveal its secrets], draws on a much older and darker discourse. Mathematicians, the meekest and least martial of academics, routinely speak of "forcing an argument through" or "compelling a conclusion." The covert mayhem of chess was brought forcibly to my attention by my son Patrick when he was nine or ten. Patrick was a chess prodigy, and went on to become a very famous International Grandmaster, twice winning the U. S. Chess Championship. [You can look him up on Wikipedia.] One day, when he was still a little boy, we were driving by a cemetary on the road between our home and the university where I taught. Patrick asked me what the building-like structures were, and I explained that they were mausoleums or tombs. People erected them to hold the coffins of the departed, and then sometimes put little statues on top to commemorate them. Patrick mulled over this bit of information for a mile or two and then said, with that unselfconscious excitement that only children and artists can manage, "I know what would be a good mausoleum for you, Daddy!" I gripped the steering wheel so tightly I thought I might bend it, and replied in as measured a voice as I could muster, "Oh, yes. What would that be, Patrick?" "Well," he explained, clearly warming to the idea, "it would be laid out like a chess board and the white king would be turned over on its side, showing it had been defeated." Not for nothing did the Germans originally call chess "vatermorder."

As the clerk of the committee called the role, I reveled in the discomfort of the Republicans, mentally slamming each vote home like another nail in their collective coffin. There is still a long way to go before Obama has his little signing ceremony, and it is still unclear just what the final bill will contain. But none of that could diminish the sadistic pleasure I felt as Orrin Hatch, Jon Kyle, John Ensign and the rest were forced to sit there silently and see their efforts at destruction turned into ashes. Winning really beats losing every time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BOOK REVIEWING

On Sunday, Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book received a rather tepid or even negative review in the NY TIMES Book Review Section. I have not seen the book, but the review reminded me once again what a thankless chore book reviewing is. I have brooded about this for more than half a century, ever since, as a doctoral student rummaging through the Widener Library stacks as part of my dissertation research, I came across the original 1739 review of David Hume's immortal work, A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, in a journal titled A HISTORY OF THE WORKS OF THE LEARNED. Here in part is what the reviewer had to say about Volumes One and Two, which were published anonymously in 1739 [the last volume appeared in 1740.] "... a Man, who has never had the Pleasure of reading Mr. Locke's incomparable Essay, will peruse our author with much less Disgust, than those can who have been used to the irresistible Reasoning and wonderful Perspicuity of that aqdmirable Writer." Hume was so devastated by the review that in a later work, his Two Treatises, he included a preliminary "advertisement" in which he disavowed the work of his youth, little realising that it would in time come to be recognized as the greatest work of philosophy ever to be written in English.

You have to feel a certain sympathy for the reviewer [also anonymous]. To be handed A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE and be called upon to cough up a review in a few weeks or a month is really not fair! [I felt an even deeper sympathy for the reviewers who were forced to tackle the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON when it appeared in 1781, although they, aware that its author was already a distinguished Professor at Koenigsberg University, were a good deal kinder.]

But beyond the problem of evaluating a complex and demanding piece of work in a tiny fraction of the time it took to produce, there is another issue that the Ehrenreich review raises. It has always seemed to me to be unfair to judge a minor effort by an established creative person -- author, painter, composer, performer -- as though it were the first and only production of someone with no history of acknowledged accomplishment. "What have you done for me lately" seems to be the mindset of most reviewers -- who of course in the overwhelmiong preponderance of cases have themselves done nothing at all! We do not think that way about the masters of past ages. We take an appropriate interest in Mozart's lesser symphonies [which, on their own merits, are not actually superior to the works of many contemporaneous composers, even Salieri.] We read all of Jane Austen's novels, not just the two or three that are transcendentally great. We put on stage Shakespeare's least notable efforts. The idea behind this is that once a creative person has, through a body of work, earned a permanent place in our estimation, we consider it worthwhile to experience the totality of his or her works, for what the oeuvre can tell us about the mind and heart we have come to admire.

No one would quarrel with this judgment when Shakespeare or Dickinson or Austen or Tolstoi or Matisse or Bach is in question. But do we not owe something similar to the lesser spirits among us? Which returns me to my starting point. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a number of extremely valuable books which, taken together, give us a focused and richly detailed look at the lives of the scores of millions of Americans who languish at the bottom of the income pyramid. She has earned the right to our attention even for her lesser writings. Like Jane Jacobs, say, or Erving Goffman, or Richard Dawkins, or -- to take a very much greater example -- Amartya Sen, she has established a voice that is a part of our conetmporary conversation, and I for one want to hear what she has to say, on her worst day as much as on her best. I feel the same way about great film directors, great violinists, great painters, even great physicists.

Is there a bit of covert parti pris and special pleading in this? I would not be surprised.

CAPITALISM -- A LOVE STORY

Do not believe the reviews! Michael Moore's latest film is one of his very best. It is a strong, funny, gut-wrenching populist argument for democratic socialism, complete with priests and bishops who use Jesus to bash capitalism, and a moving clip of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a year before his death, calling for a new economic Bill of Rights. I won't try to summarize the movie for you. Just go see it.

GIANTS IN THE EARTH

There were giants in the earth in those days [Genesis 6:4]

I had a dream last night in which I found myself talking to a group of Harvard students [prompted, perhaps, by the telephone chat with my son, Tobias, who is teaching this semester at Harvard Law School.] When I woke up, the dream was still vivid in my mind, and it prompted me to think back to my time as an Instructor at Harvard, in the late '50s and very early '6os [of the twentieth, not the nineteenth, century!] I ended up looking back at my course files from that period, including the file on the tutorial that I taught jointly with Barrington Moore, Jr. in the first year of a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major, Social Studies, now about to celebrate its fiftieth year in operation. I was the first Head Tutor of Social Studies, appointed by McGeorge Bundy, who the next year left Harvard to become John Kennedy's National Security Advisor. Social Studies was intended to give a select group of students an opportunity to study the social sciences in an integrated fashion, without regard for the disciplinary boundaries that at that time so markedly divided the several branches of the sozialwissenschaften from one another. The program has been a considerable success, and is now, I believe the third or fourth largest major field at Harvard.

Moore and I took charge of six sophomores, for whom, it should be noted, this tutorial was an ungraded add-on to their normal course load. Oncde a week, we met in my rooms in Winthrop House, where I was a resident tutor, for two hours. It was a bit like tag-team wrestling. Moore would start in ion them for a while, quizzing them about the reading for that session. When he flagged, he would tap me and I would jump in, picking up the pace. After two hours, the students were wrung through.

To give you some idea of how intense it was, let me simply reproduce, from my notes, the year's reading list [there were, that first year, three tutorial groups of six students each, taught by pairs of faculty so selected that each pair represented two different disciplines.]

The first reading was Adam Smith's WEALTH OF NATIONS -- all 900 pages of it! This was followed either by Schumpeter's THEORY OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT or John Stuart Mill's two-volume POLITICAL ECONOMY [the choice Moore and I made.] Next up was a volume of Marx's writings edited by Lewis Feuer, and then Alexis de Tocqueville's THE OLD REGIME AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION [a relatively light bit of reading.] Students now then did an abrupt turn, and tackled the two volume PRIMITIVE CULTURE by Sir Edward Tylor [some groups substituted Maine's ANCIENT LAW.] We were also supposed to go through Franz Boas' THE MIND OF PRIMITIVE MAN, but Moore and I took a pass on that one -- I think we had lingered too long on Marx. This was followed by Nietzsche's GENEOLOGY OF MORALS and Freud's CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS. The Nietzsche was drawn from a large collection edited by Walter Kaufman, and students were advised, parenthetically, that they should read other selections from the volume. Whether any of them did, I do not recall. Well, after that light Freud break, it was back to Emile Durkheim's SUICIDE and 350 pages of Marx Weber [the merest scratching of the surface, as those who are familiar with Weber weill recognize.] The year-long tutorial wrapped up with R. G. Collingwood's THE IDEA OF HISTORY and Alfred North Whitehead's MODES OF THOUGHT [I was opposed to that choice, never having found Whitehead's philosophy, as opposed to his mathematical logic, of much interest, but as the only non-tenured member of the Social Studies Committee I was overruled, even though I was the only philosopher in the group.]

Well, as the Emperor Joseph says in AMADEUS, there it is.

In those days, tuition at Harvard was a couple of thousand dollars a year. I think the students got their money's worth.

Monday, October 12, 2009

OBAMA'S BIG SPEECH

I am not gay, and even though I have a deep personal interest in the status of the LGBT community [my son, Tobias, is gay, and I long for the day when I can attend his wedding], I think I need to exhibit a certain restraint and circumspection in offering my judgment about Obama's speech to the Human Rights Campaign meeting in Washington. That said, I would like to explain why I think the speech was an extremely important positive moment in the long struggle for LGBT equality.

Both by his choice of words and by his choice of venue, Obama, in that speech, put the full faith and credit of the presidency behind the agenda of the LGBT community. Many of the specific items on the agenda -- most notably the repeal of DADT and DOMA -- will require congressional action, and that, as is made obvious by the current health care reform battle, is going to be complex and messy. But I think Obama deliberately and knowingly backed himself into a corner with that speech. He made it impossible for him NOT to fulfill those promises without totally alienating one of his strongest sources of political support. Presidents do not do that unless they fully intend to come through.

How should the LGBT community and its supporters respond? Obama had an answer, and it was the correct answer -- by putting even more pressure on him and on Congress to accomplish everything on their agenda. In every possible way, during his campaign, Obama made it clear that he believes change requires bottom-up pressure, not top-down largesse. The ball is in our court.

Friday, October 9, 2009

SPONTANEITY IS OVER-VALUED

Spontaneity of wit can be over-valued, I think. The carefully crafted zinger, trotted out when the perfect occasion arises, gives a greater pleasure than the cleverest riposte thrown out on the moment. Oscar Wilde's greatest bon mot, though it appears nowhere in his writings and survives only through the reports of those who heard it, was obviously lovingly shaped in the privacy of his chambers, and held back by him until the moment was right. I refer, of course, to his immortal literary evaluation of one of Charles Dickens' most famous scenes: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

My old friend and Columbia Philosophy Department colleague Sidney Morgenbesser, now sadly departed, was the author of countless repeatable quips. One of my favorites, not all that well known, concerned the New York Jewish pompous, self-important, faux English literary critic, Lionel Trilling, who taught for many years at Columbia. Morgenbesser came upon him one evening at a social gathering where Trilling was, in his customary fashion, pontificating about something or other and trying as hard as he could to seem to be an Oxford Don. Sidney walked up to him and, in his loud, penetrating voice, said, "Ah, Lionel. Incognito, ergo sum, eh?"

Sidney published almost nothing in his life, but a line like that is worth a dozen academic journal articles.

THE NOBEL

Any prize whose anointees includes Henry Kissinger must be welcomed with some caution, but the Nobel Prize Committee's choice of Obama for this year's Peace Prize is to be enjoyed, if only for the frenzy into which it has driven the Republicans. You have to feel some measure of sympathy for them. They are having a really bad decade.

PERSONAL STUFF

Several years ago, when I first considered starting a blog, I said to several of my students that it would not have personal stuff on it. "But then it won't be a blog!" they replied. Inasmuch as I am the student of my students in all things relating to contemporary culture [my sons are way too sophisticated to be reliable in this regard], I have from time to time attempted to include reports and reflections that do not rise to the level of political or philosophical commentary. Herewith a few more efforts in that direction.

I begin with the subject of pet cats. Susie and I have two cats: Murray, named after the dog on the old TV show MAD ABOUT YOU, starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, and Christmas Eve, so called because she was found as a stray kitten up a tree and turned over to us in a Whole Foods parking lot by a friend on Christmas Eve thirteen years ago. Christmas is in renal failure, and must receive twice a week subcutaneous infusions of a saline solution. She is underweight, and we are desperately trying to encourage her to eat. Murray, who is eleven, is in fine health, but seriously overweight [he gives new meaning to the expression "fat cat"], and we have put him on a diet at the suggestion of our Vet. Trying simultaneously to get one cat to eat more and the other to eat less is considerably more difficult than anything I had to do when I was the father of two small boys. Murray scarfs his food down and then stares longingly at Christmas while she slowly eats part of what she has been given. If one of us does not stand guard to snatch the bowl up the moment she wanders away, he is on it in a flash. He lies on the dinner table during meals staring longingly and fixedly at the food on our plates. He has indeed lost weight -- 12 ounces in a week, which, proportional to his size, is rather fast. But since the whole point of having pets is to spoil them rotten in all the ways one could not justificably spoil one's children, the strain on Susie and me is monumental. As for Murray, all I can say is that Michael Douglas' famous "greed is good" speech in the movie WALL STREET barely scratches the surface of the emotion that Murray is visibly consumed by.

And now to muscle pain. I do a four mile power walk each morning in an effort to retard the inevitable decay of age. I plow on up and down some significant hills along a path that takes me from Meadowmont Village, where I live, to the edge of the UNC campus, and back again. Despite the fact that I encounter many runners and joggers either passing me or coming the other way, I have for months not been tempted to break into a trot. Ever since I was a boy, running has been difficult for me -- not for any particular physical reason; it is simply antipathetic to who I am. Well, three days ago, in an effort to shave some minutes off my regular time for the walk, I started jogging down the half-mile long hill that constitutes the last portion of the outward half and the first portion of the return. There were two results. First, I managed to cut my time by three or four minutes; and second, my upper legs, from knee to hip, were in such pain that I could not sit down or stand up without using my arms to assist me. Tylenol in massive doses did not even touch it. Now, I used to have serious back trouble, for which I went to a chiropracter, Keith McCormack, who earlier in life had been an Olympic athlete. He explained to me that some substance [I think it is acetylcholine, but I am not sure] builds up on the muscle sheath, and causes the muscles to go into a permanent and very painful spasm. Deep, focused, and painful massage can literally strip the accumulated chemical from the muscle and slough it off, so that the muscle goes out of spasm. Last night, awakened by the pain, I lay in bed and, with my thumbs, dug deep into the large muscles of both upper legs, repeatedly stripping them, or so it seemed to me, of the accumulation. Believe it or not, it worked! I am still hurting, and I shall take a day off this morning, but the severe and crippling muscle ache is gone.

With the public option hanging by a thread, and Afghanistan in the balance, there is not the slightest chance that either of these mini-essays will be of the slightest interest to anyone, but I feel that I have fulfilled the injunction of my students. Now if I could only learn to instant message!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

FYI

You high minded types probably don't spend much time bottom feeding on the internet, so you may have missed this story, unless you live in Central Pennsylvania. [See Josh Marshall's TPM site for details.] A soccer mom had her gun permit revoked for wearing a revolver on her hip to her child's soccer game. A higher court reversed, but observed that it was a dumb thing to do. She sued the sheriff who arrested her, charging that the entire affair had caused her great distress. Tragically, she and her husband have just been found dead in their home, apparently a double suicide.

This is a terrible thing for their three children, who were home at the time, and of course for them. But the tag line of the story caught my eye. There is really no possioble comment. Here it is:

The way people look at me sometimes when I am out running errands, I feel as if I am wearing a scarlet letter, and really it’s a Glock 26."



Wednesday, October 7, 2009

EVEN TIGGER GETS DEPRESSED

Fair warning. This is likely to be a long, rambling, brooding blog post. Even Tigger gets depressed from time to time, when the half acre wood is no longer offering its customary delights.

The news leaking out of the White House is that Obama has ruled out drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but is still debating the requests by the military for troop increases. I have the sinking feeling that he has wandered into that quagmire, and cannot bring himself to take the bold, unpopular, but ultimately politically wise step of winding it down. I think Judith Baker is right, but I also think that there is simply nothing I or others like me can do about it.

It would take a president possessed of divine arrogance to cut our losses. I think Obama has many impressive traits of character, and many gifts of intellect, but that sort of arrogance is, I fear, not one of them.

At the same time, the health care reform effort is stumbling toward a moderately satisfactory conclusion. There will be a bill. It will be a massive improvement on what we have now. It will have something that looks like a public option in it. And it will essentially leave the inefficient, dysfunctional, unsatisfactory American health care delivery system intact.

I do not at all blame this one on Obama. He has handled himself with enormous skill in this effort, and he will be rewarded with a better bill than could have issued from the efforts of any other politician in America today. In this case, the problem is that the source of the dysfunction is not characterological but structural. The decision made at the end of World War II to tie health care to employment, a decision that worked pretty well for three or four decades when lifetime employment by a single employer was much more common, has left us with a vast system of insurance companies, HMOs, capitalist drug companies, and pay for play doctors that now yields inferior results for an exorbitant price.

[Footnote: My French cousin, Andre Zarembowich, retired Physics professor and, like me, a man of the left, tells me that the French system that is so often cited as an example in these debates actually owes its existence to the power and influence of the French Communist Party at the end of the Second World War. So the Republicans who call reform proposals socialistic are essentailly right. What they neglect to mention is that in this case, socialism has yielded a far superior result. Why am I not surprised?]

It was Marx who taught us that revolutionary change occurs when, as he put it, the new order grows in the womb of the old. That is how capitalism displaced feudalism, and it is how Marx hoped and expected that socialism would displace capitalism. To think otherwise is to fall into what Engels labeled "utopian socialism," for which he and Marx shared a contempt with the naysayers of the right. There are many interesting new formations growing in the womb of capitalism, most obvious among which is the transformation of information dispersal and authority structures by the Internet. But nothing remotely resembling such nascent change can be seen in the health care delivery sector of the American economy. That is why the entrenched interests have such an easy time of it resisting reform, and why the reforms proposed so often have the air of utopian fantasies.

I said, a few days ago, that I was tired of being perpetually angry. I also long to be able to hope. How long, O Lord, how long?

READING RECOMMENDATION

Some time ago, as I was preparing my lectures on Marx for the OSHER program, I conceived the idea of following those lectures with a series of "Thought of ..." courses devoted to some of the great social thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose insights have been lost to us, or have been distorted by the passage of time. My first thought was to offer a course on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, and I tentatively decided to follow that with courses on The Thought of Max Weber and The Thought of Karl Mannheim.

The Freud course has now actually been announced, and will be given this Spring. I had intended to build the course around the brilliant book on Freud by Richard Wollheim, which I had read many decades earlier. But re-reading the Wollheim in Paris in September, I concluded that it was much too technically difficult to serve as the basic reading for such a series of lectures. Accordingly, I ordered from Amaazon.com a fat paperback FREUD READER edited by the distinguished historian Peter Gay. [Full disclosure: at Columbia in '68, Gay and I crossed swords in a debate before more than a thousand students, he defending the university administration and I defending the students. Gay, who had been hugely popular as a lecturer, was so personally affronted by the negative reaction of the students that he accepted an offer from Yale, and finished his career there -- a great loss for Columbia, needless to say.] My current plan is to read the 800 page collection in the next month, and choose from it appropriate selections for the course.

I should perhaps explain that I have absolutely no academic credentials to underwrite my offering of this course. Still, it is true that I have over the course of my long life spent twenty years in one form of therapy or another -- teenage analysis, a full scale Freudian psychoanalysis, couples therapy, and once-a-week counseling, all by medically trained psychoanalysts. I have the sort of insight into psychoanalysis that a lump of clay has into pottery.

Gay's reader opens with "An Autobiographical Study"written by Freud, near the end of his life, for inclusion in a collection of autobiographical statements by eminent physicians. I am now halfway through this forty page essay, and I can report that it is a powerful, fascinating, deeply moving piece of work. I strongly commend it to anyone reading this blog. The essay is quite reserved and contains very little of Freud's personal life. What makes it so powerful is the enormous intellectual courage and honesty he displayed at each stage in the development of what we now know as Freudian theory. To arive at an understanding of the psychoneuroses presented by his patients, Freud was forced to engage simulataneously the philosophical preconceptions concerning consciousness and mental life that had dominated western thought for more than two millennia, the prudish and close-minded prejudices both of his colleagues and of the Viennese bourgeoisie, his own internal conflicts and resistances, and the puzzling presentations and manifestations of mental illness exhibited by his patients. The clarity and determination with which he carried out this complex task is such as to command our admiration and respect. I confess that reading a portion of the essay this morning, I found tears coming to my eyes at the sheer beauty of the ideas that Freud formulated to make sense of his data.

This is an essay that is well worth your time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

POETIC INTERLUDE

On Thursday, I shall give the third in a series of eight lectures on the Thought of Karl Marx, at the Osher Lifelong Leraning Institute at Duke University. The reading for that day is the first fifteen pages of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, the great tract penned by Marx in 1848. In an attempt to capture for my students something of the feeling that Marx must have experienced at that time, when faced, at the age of thirty, with the prospect of a thoroughoing political and economic upheaval in Germany, I plan to read to the class the poem that William Wordsworth wrote in 1805, recalling his feelings and those of his compatriots at the news of the French Revolution. Here is the entire text of the poem:

OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong in love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

The attraction of a country in romance!

When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,

When most intent on making of herself 10

A prime Enchantress--to assist the work,

Which then was going forward in her name!

Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,

The beauty wore of promise, that which sets

(As at some moment might not be unfelt

Among the bowers of paradise itself)

The budding rose above the rose full blown.

What temper at the prospect did not wake

To happiness unthought of? The inert

Were roused, and lively natures rapt away! 20

They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,

The playfellows of fancy, who had made

All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength

Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred

Among the grandest objects of the sense,

And dealt with whatsoever they found there

As if they had within some lurking right

To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,

Had watched all gentle motions, and to these

Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild, 30

And in the region of their peaceful selves;--

Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty

Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,

And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;

Were called upon to exercise their skill,

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,

Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world

Of all of us,--the place where in the end

We find our happiness, or not at all! 40

1805.

The fourth and fifth lines are immortal. Would that my sons could feel that bliss just once!


Monday, October 5, 2009

A QUIET TRIBUTE

This morning, I received an email message from an old friend, Judith Baker. It was a circular message sent by Judith to urge all of us to protest the expansion of the war in Afghanistan while there is still time. Like Judith, I recall LBJ and the Viet Nam War, and like her, I see this war as having the potential to destroy Obama's presidency. [See my post some days ago.] I will continue to do what I can, of course.

But the message reminded me once again what an extraordinary person Judith Baker is. I first met Judith when we both sat on the board of Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid. Judith is class of '70 at Harvard and Radcliffe, almost a generation younger than I. She was one of the brave souls who occupied Harvard's Administration Building -- and, if I am not mistaken, was denied graduation as a consequence. [Harvard has always been a real class act.]

She then devoted a lifetime to teaching in the inner city in Boston at the secondary school level. Along the way, she got involved in a program that teaches students and teachers how to use writing as a tool for education. She and her husband, Brook, who teaches law at Northeastern, became involved in South Africa, and Judith and I reconnected. For years now, both before retirement and afterwards, she has been spending enormous amounts of time in desperately poor rural regions of South Africa, bringing creative and effective teaching techniques to Black teachers whose education was stunted by the Apartheid doctrine of Fundamental Pedagogics and its associated rote teaching techniques.

Judith is an extremely self-deprecating person, who routinely downplays her own heroic efforts while lavishly praising those of the people around her. [I feel intensely embarrassed when she praises me for my rather feeble efforts in South Africa, since I view myself as ectype to her archetype.]

Thinking again about Judith reminded me of something that is too often forgotten, especially by those who are of the generation after hers. The Sixties [which is to say the late 60's and early 70's] were a famously exciting time, during which millions of young people experimented with drugs, had a go at promiscuous sex [not quite as original as they thought at the time], and even engaged in a bit of political protest and street theater. For many of them, it was a phase of growing up, a time to be romanticized, looked back at fondly, and memorialized in the selection of songs to download to one's IPhone.

But for many, many people like Judith, it was a time that permanently defined who they were and how they would live the rest of their lives. Time passes, and no matter how hard we all try, only a handful of us can manage to spend the rest of our lives on college campuses. So some of the 60's activists became doctors, others became lawyers, still others became machinists, auto workers, architects, health care workers, or small business operators. But they carried their commitment into their adult lives. As doctors, they now staff neighborhood clinics or even work with Doctors Without Borders. As lawyers, they offer pro bono services to those too poor to afford decent legal advice. As architects they strive to design ecologtically friendly structures that promote community, rather than selling their services to the promoters of gated compounds. In short, all across America are people like Judith whose entire way of being in the world is an affirmation of the commitments they made and the ideals they formed in the 60's. [I do not include myself in this group because when the student uprisings began, I was already a tenured professor of philosophy at Columbia. My role was to support the students in whatever way I could, although it is true that six or seven years ago I joined a group of Harvard students demonstrating for a living wage for Harvard employees, and for a few hours helped them seize the Administration Building, carrying my umbrella and briefcase.]

I have seen many of these now aging radicals at Obama events. Our hair is gray [those of us who have any], our walk is a bit unsteady, but all of us, I think, can feel a continutiy of who we are now and who we were then.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA

Some of my friends have asked me why I am not angrier with Obama for his failure to pursue a more progressive agenda in his first year. Heaven knows, there is enough to be angry about, what with the character of his economic advisors, his failure to move more swiftly on the repeal of DOMA and DADT, and the absence in his inner circle of any truly progressive advisors. I could repeat, as I have many times, that I never expected him to be a passionate progressive, that he faces a moderate, not to say conservative, Congressional Democratic establishment, and that the overwhelming threat of a complete economic meltdown, coupled with the enormous difficulty of putting together a workable health care reform coalition, has forced him to postpone more progressive items on his agenda. But true though all of that is, it is not the real explanation for the tonality of my commentary.



The truth is that at seventy-five, I am simply weary of being constantly, gut-wrenchingly angry all the time. I started getting angry in the late Fall and early Spring of 1960-61, over the impending invasion of Cuba. I worked myself into a permanent frenzy over the threat of nuclear war. I got angrier about Civil Rights and the Viet Nam War. I folded in rage at the outrageously discriminatory professional treatment of my first wife, which triggered my successful effort to get the American Philosophical Association to establish a standing committee on the status of women in the profession. I was livid about Nixon, furious about Reagan, contemptuous of the first Bush, appalled by the second Bush. As Lily von Shtupp [Madeline Kahn] sings in Mel Brooks' immortal movie, BLAZING SADDLES, I'm tired!

When Barack Obama stepped forward as a candidate, I threw myself into the effort, donating the legal limit to his campaign, entering data in the campaign database, knocking on doors, doing poll watch duty. The night he was elected was one of the high points of my life. Damn it! I have earned the right to feel happy, at least for a year!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

AN ELEGANT DEFINITION OF RELIGION

On Thursdays, while I am teaching my course on The Thought of Marx in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University, Susie is taking a course next door on The Separation of Church and State. In the first session, the Instructor handed out a number of summaries of Supreme Court cases dealing with claims of conscientious objection, one importantr element of which is the determination of what will count as religion. This is, in the United States, a rather delicate question, of course, what with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Scientologists, and the Lord knows what else all hawking their wares. Susie showed me the materials, and they put me in mind of the greatest definition of religion I have ever encountered. It is hardly obscure, since it occurs in Thomas Hobbes' immortal work LEVIATHAN. When modern conservatives hark back to Hobbes, I sometimes wonder whether they have actually read the book.

Here is the definition, from the great fourth chapter of Part 1, entitled "Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; and the Speeches by Which They are Expressed." It is contained in an extraordinary long paragraph, which begins: "For appetite, with an opinion of attaining, is called HOPE. The same, without such opinion, DESPAIR..." and, after giving definitions of fear, courage, benevolence, covetousness, ambition, liberality, natural lust, and many more terms, comes finally to this:

"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION. And when the power imagined, is truly such as we imagine, TRUE RELIGION."

Reflect on that a bit. Tales publicly allowed, Religion; not allowed, Superstition. There is not a more mordant, laconic, unillusioned, a-religious sentence in all of English literature.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

I recently switched to a Southwest Airlines credit card, in an effort to win some free flights to see my grandchildren in San Francisco. The man who signed me up in Midway Airport as I was passing through on my way home gave me a number to call to get credit for flights I have taken with Southwest in the past two years. I called today, expecting that I would be told that I had to have kept my boarding passes or at least know the flight numbers and dates.

Not a bit of it. The nice lady asked me for my email address [I always buy E-tickets] and proceeded to scan their computer while I waited, turning up half a dozen flights. She offered to scan my old credit card number to see whether she had missed any flights. It seems I already have more than enough points for a free round trip flight.

We all recall, after 9/11, the embarrassing testimony before Congress, to the effect that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is incapable of doing a computer search for a person unless they know his full name and address. As a consequence of this fact, they could not track the people who, they actually knew, were planning evil deeds.

Now, inasmuch as outsourcing to private corporations is the way in which the United States now handles prison management, national defense, and just about everything else, I would like to propose that the FBI be privatized, with the primary management contract going to Google, Amazon.com, NetFlix, and Southwest. Not only can they find anyone within seconds. They can also tell in that time the person's taste in books, music, home furnishings, and porn sites, and can suggest movies that he or she might enjoy. What is more, I would bet that they could set up a user-friendly interface among their data bases in a matter of days.

I mean, if we are going to consign ourselves to the tender mercies of capitalism, couldn't we at least get the cutting edge version?

Friday, October 2, 2009

ODDS AND ENDS

I. My big sister, Barbara, who will be eighty next year, has had an extraordinarily distinguished career. After winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and graduating summa cum laude from Swarthmore, she went on to earn a doctorate in Biochemistry at Harvard. She then worked for a while on a project headed up by the Stanford Philosopher and logician Patrick Suppes to teach mathematics to Central American children by radio, before joining the Education Department of the World Bank. Having served on projects in such places as The People's Republic of China, South Yemen, and the Central African Empire, she was elevated to the position of Ombud of the entire World Bank, a post from which she retired some years ago. She radiates a focused, practical intelligence that is enormously impressive.

When Barbara was a teenager, she took a test to see what she might have an aptitude for. After reviewing the results, the psychologist administering the test gave her one piece of advice: "Don't ever become a secretary!"

I thought of that this morning as I struggled with my computer to merge print the letters that will form this year's fund-raising appeal for the scholarship organization I run, University Scholarships for South African Students. I have been doing this for twenty years now, and Microsoft Word has all manner of mail merge wizards and little drop down menus to take you through the process. Since I break my donor list into eight sub-groups for mailing purposes [different address structures, different degree of personal touch in the salutation, etc.], I have to go through the mail merge process over and over before the letters are ready to be folded and stuffed into the envelopes [which have already been merge printed]. This is, you understand, pure rote work, requiring nothing more than patience and a modicum of intelligence. And yet, I find it the most stressful and tiring thing I do all year. Teaching a class, which I did yesterday, is by comparison a breeze. I suspect had I taken that test, I would have received the same advice.

II. The NY TIMES has a long story this morning detailing the scrimy doings of that perfectly coiffeured, Hollywood handsome scumbag, Senator John Ensign. If you follow the story to an inside page, you will find a photo of Ensign and his wife, his top aide and his wife [with whom Ensign had the affair], and Ensign's chief fund raiser. Look at Ensign's wife and the woman with whom he strayed. They could be twins! It is creepy.

III. I spent some time yesterday watching the Baucus committee's debates and votes on the health care reform proposals. [C-Span 3, if you get it]. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell is really impressive. The contrast between her manifest intelligence and decency, and the appalling inadequcies of Kyl, Hatch, and the other Republicans on the committee is a sight to behold.

IV. As I predicted, health care reform is alive and well and will almost certainly include some form of a public option. When this is all over, I will explain how I know these things.